Unlocked and unattended boxes for people to drop off and take books as a means of free-cycling existed before the internet came along just fine. But like many things, the internet has impacted it dramatically. With this free idea, I intend to argue that a global inventory system is a major blind spot in the tools currently available for book exchange boxes. Importantly, implementing and running a site to do this would offer a relatively high level of value relative to the effort needed to develop it in a modern web framework and to keep the service live then-on.
Unreliable Data as Critical Intellectual Shift
Running an inventory on a book-exchange box would be a relatively simple task. So would the act of taking a picture and entering a new one into the database (more on that detail later). The obvious problem is that a website could not hope to reliably indicate whether a book was there or not. Instead, the best you could hope for would be to say “book last seen on xx-xx-xxxx in this box”. Asking users to register their checkouts (or outright “takes”) may be perfectly reasonable for some hosts of the boxes. For someone taking on this project, that may be the exact thing they start out doing as a pilot in their front lawn. However, the global system already has a clear set of rules in place, which expressly allows any member of the public to take any book with no administrative burden.
Thus, a guarantee is not in the cards. This must be accepted as amorphous, suggestive, data. That said, I still believe that the basic attributes are in a sufficiently structured form, with a large amount of leverage available for data gathering.
The Little Free Library is a project that already maintains information on the book exchange boxes themselves. However, this information is not comprehensive (and very restrictive by design). It is a program, and only the owners of the boxes can enter the program. This fundamentally limits penetration a meaningful extent. For example, a park might have a children’s book exchange box, but in order to register it on the LFL site, the park committee might have to vote to approve the registration. Then, likely $50-$100 would need to be either donated by a highly motivated community member or come out of the park’s budget just to buy the sign.
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Individuals who feel motivated by the LFL program are likely to take these steps, but it’s easy to see that a database could be more comprehensive if the standards for identifying (“registering” in their lingo) were loosened. It stands to reason that many unregistered book boxes exist out there. As I understand it, there is virtually no accounting of these. They exist entirely in the physical world, entirely absent from the internet.
We have other web server solutions for libraries… but in the traditional sense. Projects I have seen tends to come down to bottom-up library management tools. These are what you want for an individual institution that is highly managed.
For the free library box concept, we necessarily need something global, ran as a service, and native to the internet.
A simple relational system between books and book boxes.
- See map of the known library boxes with markings for: duplicate entry with Little Free Library, and if an index has been taken
- Look at last-known inventory of books in a box
- See an extended list of books (specific to a single box) that can be requested to be filled by another user
- Run inventory on a book box
- Enter info about an untracked book box
- List your own books, and book boxes you would be willing to drop books off at
Of course, like any free-cycle stuff, there are plenty of busybodies who will naturally oppose and fight the concept. There would certainly be some resistance to the very act of hosting an index. Some owners might want to opt-out. But some people also don’t like Pokemon Go gyms next to their business either. Society is changing, and this simple overlay on top of stuff that is already out there is probably safer than many ideas.
There’s another (perhaps more important) level of unreliability to this scheme. It’s entirely possible that you request a user drop a book in a box, only to have a random passer-by snatch it up (entirely consistent with the rules and social norms anyway). My response is basically “oh well”. If everyone starts out understanding the unreliability in the system, as this forces them to do, it might not be such a problem on the management scale.